The Bishop & The Ballot in Boston: 2012 Edition

Next month, voters in Massachusetts will decide whether to approve Question #2, "allowing a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally-ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that persons life".With all the discussion here at dotCommonweal in recent weeks about whether, when and how our bishops should enter into the arena of electoral politics, the example of Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and how he's chosen to engage with the challenges presented by Question #2 seems a worthy addition to our ongoing "clarification of thought". In the first in a series of columns Cardinal O'Malley is writing in the weeks leading up to the election*, three things struck me as important aspects of how he is exercising his role as bishop and teacher:Humility: O'Malley begins not by invoking his (or the pope's, or the Church's) authority, but by framing his forthcoming statements as "some reflections around the theme of end-of-life issues" that he wants "to share with the people (of) the archdiocese". He then tells the story of how as a young Franciscan, he "decided 'to make the sacrifice' in solidarity with a fellow religious" of showing up to a sparsely attended honorary degree ceremony for the then-little known Mother Teresa of Calcutta. (There's a gentle, self-mocking humor exhibited here; it's a characteristic of the cardinal's pastoral style often evident in his appearances around the archdiocese.)

Gratitude: Much of the column is simply a matter of giving recognition where recognition is due: to Eileen Egan and her longtime work with the Catholic Worker and Catholic Relief Services that led her to know---and eventually to write a biography of---Mother Teresa; to Mother Teresa herself, to Rose Hawthorne (yes, daughter of Nathaniel) who founded a Dominican community to care for those dying of cancer; to Cicely Saunders who built the world's first stand-alone hospice; to Florence Wald who popularized the hospice movement in the United States; to the "nurses and hospice workers (who) truly ministered to the whole family" when his own father was dying.Connection: O'Malley affirms that "(t)aking care of people at the end of their lives, giving palliative care to address the physical pain and bringing reassurance to people dealing with fear and frustration is truly doing something beautiful for God." He invokes the words of the Hail Mary, "Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death". He recalls the popular devotion that names St. Joseph the "patron of a happy death". And he says, "We all want what is best for our loved ones, especially at the end of lifes journey."It is from that position that he moves forward to conclude, "It is my hope that this series of reflections...will demonstrate that physician assisted suicide is an assault on human dignity. It must never be seen as a viable alternative to hospice and palliative care that address not only peoples pain but also their fears and frustration."This is not (I hope!) the room for an argument about which American bishops are "better" or "worse" in this election season. (The room for an argument is, I believe, here.) Rather, I hope it's a "room" for a small part of the ongoing conversation we have about how best to read the signs of the times and, having done so, how best to preach the Gospel in the political arena.Your thoughts?*Here are links to the second and third columns published to date.

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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